The divorced women’s Maus: Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel

I really loved Anya Ulinich’s new graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.

I read it basically as memoir… Only now reflecting do I realize that it’s a novel.  Still, my guess is that it’s largely autobiographical (most of it seems to match up with the author’s life) — but I don’t actually know that.

You might especially enjoy it if:

  • you like Gary Shteyngart’s work and/or have an interest in contemporary Russia (the protagonist flies there for a visit early on) or in the generation of Soviet Jews who immigrated to the U.S. in the 70s following the loosening of the USSR’s emigration policies. “Evoking Louis C.K.’s humor and Amy Winehouse’s longing and anguish” says the jacket copy — hmm, that latter seems a strain, and I almost get the feeling that the copywriter was desperately trying to avoid mentioning Lena Dunham.  (I prefer Etgar Keret’s blurb: “the divorced women’s Maus.”)  But yes, she is quite hilarious, and recalls Shteyngart a bit in Little Failure in the way they both self-deprecatingly narrate their floundering attempts to de-Sovietize and to enter mainstream American life.  (And come to think of it, Lena’s visit to St. Petersburg functions in the narrative somewhat comparably to Shteyngart’s return back to Russia in Little Failure.)
  • you’ve done a lot of online dating in your late 30s or 40s or following a divorce.  The main plot of the book involves our narrator, divorced from her second husband Josh (the first was a quickie marriage basically for a green card), tip-toeing into the dating pool, having by age 37 had a grand total of three lovers to date.  Ulinich is hilarious on the parade of grim, weird, unattractive, misguided men Lena encounters.  She has earlier characterized the students in her adult-education creative writing classes as falling primarily into the five (sometimes overlapping) categories of the Brilliant, the Insane, the Illiterate, the Angry and Ambitious, and the Jerk-0ff:Photo on 8-10-14 at 1.44 PM
    [all images taken from the book w/o permission, all rights belong to the author]

    Her taxonomy of the guys she dates is comparable.  Here’s her overview of the photos men post on the dating sites:Photo on 8-10-14 at 1.41 PM

    Among her rules, she won’t date any guy posing in a photo “with little, mercilessly objectified third world children;”  nor a guy offering the photographer a beer, a cocktail, or a dead fish, “not to mention a guy in a chainmail helmet… that he’d made himself.” She eventually finds an apparent keeper, a moody bohemian 45 year-old she dubs the Orphan.  I won’t give away how things play out with him, as this is the main business of the last part of the book…

  • …but I will add that those who have endured a devastatingly painful breakup will probably find a lot to empathize with in Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.
  • you are a fan of Chekhov’s “the Darling” or Bernard Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel.”  The latter especially (as the book’s title suggests) plays a central role; the Orphan is reading it on a bus when our protagonist meets him, and she is struck by the coincidences:Photo on 8-10-14 at 1.56 PMI actually have not read Malamud’s story, but I get the sense that parallels run fairly deeply.
  • You are or have been a struggling writer or artist (especially in Brooklyn): she’s excellent on this.  Also good on parenting and being a single mother to two girls while trying to date.

But most of all, it’s very smart & rich, funny and poignant both, and works really well visually/aesthetically as a graphic novel, with a somewhat rough-hewn, sketchy style of drawing that employs different modes and visual looks to evoke different parts of the memoir; for example, when Lena is recounting a story from the past, it’s often in what seem to be lined notebook pages, with an exaggerated, cartoon-y style, as contrasted with the more moody realism of the present moment.

Here’s a neat cartoon/ graphic review of the book in Slate (one that veers off into the author’s own hilarious-awful dating anecdotes).  Here are the two excellent reviews of the book in the NYT.

Finally I’d like to say that Lena Finkle comes across as very likable and relatable throughout. As a protagonist should.

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